I like it when people with extremely small brains get verbally bitch-slapped. Which is why when I saw the clip where an ignorant reporter questioned Radhika Apte’s motives in taking up movies with ‘controversial scenes’ in films and got yelled at by her, I decided to watch ‘Parched’.

Let me give a small gist of the movie plot and then I’ll move on to the thoughts and feelings that this film inspired in me.

It is set in rural Rajasthan and the four key protagonists are – Rani the widow who has a teenage son – Gulab, Lajjo the supposedly barren wife of an alcoholic and abusive man, Bijli the dancer and prostitute, Janki the young bride from a neighboring village married to Rani’s son.

In a village where the groom has to pay dowry to the bride’s family, Rani somehow manages to pool in her savings along with money borrowed from the local lender in order to secure a beautiful bride for her fifteen year old son. She excitedly tells her bedridden mother-in-law that now it will be her turn to rest. Lajjo is deemed barren and bears the brunt of her husband’s frustration through beatings every night. She finds comfort in Rani’s arms. Janki is in love with a boy from her own village, but her family needs the money, so they force her into a marriage with Gulab. Bijli is a sexy, fearless siren who lights up the night with her gyrations. Although she sleeps with men for money, she takes pride in being able to dictate the terms of who and when.

At first glance one assumes that ‘Parched’ is a women-centric film. Although there is a brutal display of the inability of a society to respect women by allowing horrific treatments such as physical abuse, familial rape, selling of daughters in the name of marriage; this film is a very sincere attempt to understand the psyche of the Indian man. It is painfully evident that there is something fundamentally wrong in the way boys are growing up into men in our country. If we expect change in the future, it is important to not only address how to liberate women, but to look at the root of this mounting problem.  Through the character of Gulab, Rani’s son, we get to see how easy it is for viciousness to fan out like a wildfire within. The hatred for education and progress, the expectation of a woman’s role to be a subversive one, the idea of using sex to establish authority and power and not an avenue of shared pleasure- these are all elements of a toxic, misogynistic mentality. There is an inherent belief among the gang of boys he hangs out with that being a man means doing certain things- having sex with a prostitute, beating your wife, pissing on progress (literally- watch the film, you’ll understand).

There are also the good men. Kishan, the handicrafts entrepreneur who strives to empower women through education and financial independence.  Then there’s the boy who loves Janki and comes to see her even after she is married. He sees her leading an unhappy life and longs for her. So this is why I love the director. On one hand she created a monster like Gulab who is busy using his mother’s hard-earned money to stock up debt at a brothel and on the other, there is a boy who is ready to marry a girl he loves who has already lost her virginity. And even Raju who works at the dance tent with Bijli tells her, “You should value yourself.” It’s true isn’t it? We’re always doing that to ourselves, putting ourselves down, thinking we are undeserving of all that is handed to us, refusing to ask for anything more from the world.

You know what did disappoint me, was the visuals of the location. With a title like ‘Parched’, I was expecting more rawness of the dry landscape that is Rajasthan. I do not think the director did justice to the physical landscape. You don’t get a sense of an arid land or poverty in the appearances of the huts and the village overall. But otherwise the essence of a truly parched spirit and body has been captured wonderfully. The crux of it comes through in a pivotal scene where Rani tenderly wipes at Lajjo’s wounds inflicted by her husband. Tannishta Chatterjee who plays Rani does a superb job of evoking curiosity in Lajjo’s nakedness. In that soft moment, when there is darkness in the hut and a ray of sunlight peeking in on them from above, Lajjo touches Rani back and that’s the moment when you feel it, the plight of a woman who hasn’t been touched in years, her hunger and thirst all culminating into that one delicate shudder.

Okay so now for the big scene, the ‘controversial’ love-making scene between Lajjo and the mystical lover played by Adil Hussain. To actually appreciate the passion in this scene, we must understand Lajjo more. Here is a woman who has been blamed for being infertile and has never received an ounce of affection from her husband. She demands that she has a right to happiness and wants to pluck it for herself. So vehement is this desire for a child that she is willing to overlook the sin of adultery in order to know if she is capable of bearing a child. I love the way she sees the lover in the cave and then quickly goes, covers her face, lies down and spreads her legs wide. Because you see, she has only experienced sex as an act of procreation, not carnal pleasure. If you watch the scene in this context, you are sure to be aroused by a woman experiencing an orgasm for the first time. I could relate to Apte’s anger at the interviewer who took something so beautiful and broke it. Because if there is one thing that is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, it is that nudity and sex are dirty, and used purely as commercial tools in Bollywood.

There are some scenes which are not for the faint-hearted ; Janki limping after her wedding night, Bijli in bed with multiple men who know they have gotten the better of her, Champa (a girl who runs away from her husband’s house) being sent back to her in-laws house despite telling her mother how she is raped by all the men there. Conversely there are also the ones which toast your soul; the women enjoying the feel of a vibrating phone, the girl-talk about breast size, Janki sticking her head out of a window in a bus and her lover watching the wind in her hair and feeling her bliss.

Although I usually cry at the drop of a hat, I held myself pretty steady throughout this film. Leena Yadav does a good job of balancing the heaviness with a sense of fantasy. Three women decide to run away to a city and start over. Watching them ride a neon-lit scooter on a dark night seemed a bit bizarre, but I don’t care. I need this. I need to see women who dream and imagine reality-defying possibilities.